Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Empress’s Ring

Nancy Hale (1908–1988)
From Where the Light Falls: Selected Stories of Nancy Hale

Two paintings (oil on canvas) by American artist Lilian Westcott Hale (1880–1963): When She Was a Little Girl, c. 1918 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), and Nancy and the Map of Europe, 1919 (Books and Art). Nancy Hale wrote in her memoir, “A prize-winning painting of my mother's called Nancy and the Map of Europe shows me and my large doll dressed in identical blue cotton-crepe dresses with waistlines up under the armpits, and white guimpes. I hated dresses with high waistlines, because the other girls wore dresses with low waistlines. For that matter, I hated my doll, too. . . . I had to pose so much in my childhood that when I reached the age of about thirteen I finally figured out a requirement of my own. I wouldn’t pose, I said, unless I could be painted with a book. So all subsequent pictures of me show me in the act of reading.”
The year she turned fifty, Nancy Hale recalled a childhood incident that might seem prophetic for someone who would grow up to be a magazine editor, a news reporter, and the author of seven novels, four books for young readers, two memoirs, two plays, a collection of literary essays, a much-admired biography of Mary Cassatt, and nearly two hundred stories:
I am told that when I was about to turn eight years old, my mother reported in some astonishment to my father . . . that I seemed to think I wanted a printing press for my birthday. “Don’t be alarmed,” he is supposed to have said. “All Hale children ask for printing presses when they are eight.” With the small press I got, I used to put out a family newspaper at wildly irregularly intervals, called the Society Cat.
Nancy Hale’s parents—Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale—were both painters (her mother became particularly renowned for her portraits), but their extended family included a surplus of writers and editors. “To write a book, for one of the Hales, was as natural as to breathe,” Van Wyck Brooks wrote of Hale’s nineteenth-century forebears. Her great-grandfather was the founding editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser, which is how his children and grandchildren learned the business of running a print shop. Her grandfather was Edward Everett Hale, best known for the short story “The Man Without a Country”; his sister was Lucretia Peabody Hale (author of the children’s classic The Peterkin Papers) and his wife’s aunt was Harriet Beecher Stowe. You don’t have to go out that much further on the family tree to find Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wall Paper”) and Helen Keller.

Despite her deep New England roots, Hale moved in 1928 to New York City and began working as an editor at Vogue, which published her earliest short fiction. She was soon writing for The New Yorker, which would accept more than eighty of her stories over the next four decades. Ten of her stories won O. Henry Awards and four appeared in Best American Short Story collections. In 1935 she was hired as a journalist for The New York Times, and is believed to have been the paper’s first woman reporter to cover the city news beat. The following year she settled in Charlottesville with her second husband and remained there for the rest of her life, eventually cofounding (with Elizabeth Coles Langhorne) the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Most of Hale’s stories, with settings in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, track the path of her own biography. “Reflecting on Nancy Hale’s writing necessarily also evokes her life,” writes her granddaughter Norah Hardin Lind, “for despite any claims she made to the contrary, her work is largely autobiographical. She writes of her remarkable artistic family, successful career years, troubled marriages, and emotional breakdowns. . . . Nancy Hale’s short stories are snatches of life largely drawn from her own experience, which open possibilities for the audience.” It would be a mistake, however, for any reader to get the impression that Hale’s stories are exercises in nostalgia or odes to the upper crust. In her introduction to a new collection of Hale’s best stories, Lauren Groff writes, “One can be lulled by the hard and brilliant glaze of the prose into believing that Nancy Hale subscribes to the good manners and the elegant world that she’s so adept at describing; in truth, though, she was quietly yet ferociously committed to undermining them.”

In her memoir A New England Girlhood (the title of which is a nod to Edward Everett Hale’s A New England Boyhood), Hale acknowledged the indistinctness of the boundary between her imagination and autobiography:
My pieces, although their background is the scenery and characters that bounded my childhood, are intended less about the real and ascertainable past than about the memory of it; and memory as a mode of thinking tends to burst spontaneously into fantasy at every turn. Some of the events in the stories are true to fact, some not. What interested me in writing them was to try to catch the reverberations from childhood that sometimes make it seem as if the first few years of all our lives constitute a riddle which it is a lifework to solve.
One of her more popular stories, “The Empress’s Ring,” most clearly straddles the line between fiction and memoir. Originally published in The New Yorker in 1954, she chose it as the title selection of her next short story collection and then, in 1958, she reprinted it again, this time as the third chapter of A New England Girlhood.

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I worry about it still, even today, thirty odd years later. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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